If water should get onto the car deck of a big roll-on roll-off ferry there was "an unacceptably high risk" that it would capsize "catastrophically quickly" says the report produced by the House of Commons Transport Select Committee. The report was instigated after the loss of the Estonia last September, which claimed more than 900 lives. The ship sank in minutes despite meeting more than 90 per cent of safety regulations. The Herald of Free Enterprise, which sank off Zeebrugge in 1987, claiming 193 lives, also sank in minutes.
The report castigates the existing safety measures, which it says, "appear inadequate" and shipping regulations have "for too long been a matter of setting technical rules rather than requiring the achievement of desirable objectives".
Safety is so poor that at least two MPs on the committee have chosen to avoid using ro-ro ferries. Paul Flynn, Labour MP for Newport West, said the design of the ferries makes them inherently unsafe and unstable. "If an accident happens, your life and those of your children will be virtually written off. I could certainly not relax on a ferry."
He said another member of the committee, Matthew Banks, the Conservative MP for Southport, had also altered his travel plans after hearing evidence about ferry safety. "Three-quarters of our ferries are potentially more dangerous than the Estonia," Mr Flynn said.
Paul Channon, chairman of the committee and a former Secretary of State for Transport, said: "We don't wish to strike panic into the hearts of the travelling public. These ferries have carried millions of passengers very safely over many years. But when there is an accident, there is a good risk of a catastrophic event occurring."
The committee recommended that ferry operators make improvements to ensure ships stay upright in the event of an accident in heavy seas and remain afloat for long enough for all passengers to be evacuated. This evacuation period may be in excess of two hours but regulations say ships have to remain afloat for only about 30 minutes after being critically damaged.
If no international agreement is reached on safety modifications, the UK should act unilaterally and impose them on all ferries operating out of British ports. The committee claimed that the cost of the improvements should be modest, about pounds 1m per ferry and should be done over the normal four-year refit cycle of the ships rather than the proposed phase-in times of the existing regulations which do not come into force until 2007 for some vessels.
Ferries should also be classified according to their buoyancy and a "star" rating for survivability should be considered. The coastguard should also consider holding an evacuation practice with at least 1,000 people on board a ferry to test evacuation procedures and the results should be published.
The Chamber of Shipping, which represents the interests of ferry operators, said it agreed with the objectives of the report and hoped to have solved the problems associated with the proposals by the autumn.